Sparked by the murder of George Floyd in police custody in late May, students, faculty, staff and alumni at predominantly white colleges and universities created Instagram pages to provide community members of color the opportunity to share their experiences with racism at their respective institutions. Below is an email interview with the managers of the Instagram profile @blackatbowdoin, which, according to its bio, is an “alumni-run page sharing the stories of Black Bowdoin students, alumni and community members.”
Q: When and how did you decide to create the @blackatbowdoin page? What were your goals in creating it?
A: @blackatbowdoin emerged in light of President Rose’s and Bowdoin’s initial response, or lack thereof, to the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations that gripped the country earlier this summer and to the student demands for a statement or acknowledgement of what was going on. At the time, and still today, it felt like Bowdoin was not adequately addressing the concerns of its Black and POC students. Through many meetings and conversations with both current students and alumni, one thing we kept hearing is that generations upon generations of Black Bowdoin students have had the same or similar experiences over and over at the College. The fact that we keep hearing the same stories further confirmed that Bowdoin has a race and diversity issue (to put it lightly). This inspired us to create a space where we could share the stories that we were hearing and show the connections and similarities of experience that exist between students and alumni in various class years. By showing that these are ongoing problems, we hoped to spur conversation and shed light on these experiences, which often go unheard and unaddressed.
Q: How has your experience running the page been? Has there been anything that surprised you or anything that matched your predictions for what the community’s response would be like?
A: Running the page has been bittersweet. On the one hand, we are happy that Black students and alumni have contributed and that so many members of the Bowdoin community have followed and embraced the page. We’re also grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the larger #BlackAt movement that has emerged on social media this summer, with students at schools all over the country sharing their stories and their experiences on their own campuses. We were surprised by how rapidly the page gained a following and were pleasantly surprised to see our followers engaging in lively discussions in the comments of our posts. We’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the few Bowdoin-based accounts for different offices and organizations on campus that have engaged with the page, shared the posts and reached out to offer their support (thank you!). This level of engagement far exceeded our expectations. At the same time, reading the submissions has been disheartening because it only confirmed our suspicions that the issues we’re addressing have a long, unfortunate history at the College.
Q: Is there anything in particular that you think incoming first years should know about your page and about the context in which you created it? Are there any posts on the page that you think are especially relevant to the first-year experience?
A: We want incoming first years to know and recognize that the stories we shared are not one-off weird situations that happened to a few individuals. We have submissions from students and alumni spanning numerous class years and numerous cross-sections of Black identity. These are persistent issues that the College has faced in the past and which it will continue to face until it makes the structural changes that are required to begin to alleviate some of these issues. By structural, we mean changes that go beyond just getting more BIPOC faces in the classroom, on the athletic field or in the residence halls. While these things might sound good, the reality is that they are meaningless if the College is not also rethinking what makes the campus culture and these spaces so unwelcoming to begin with. The stories we shared should be seen as emblematic of a larger institutional problem that incoming students have a chance to continue to address. When we say incoming students, we mean all incoming students, not just future Black Bowdoin students. You all have the opportunity to push the College to do better and to challenge the pervasive cultural norms that lead to exclusion, bias, racism and, frankly, a really unwelcoming environment on campus.
Q: Do you have thoughts about whether the unusual model for the upcoming fall semester and the current political context in the U.S. may disrupt certain problematic dynamics on campus/lead students with racial privilege to be more focused on anti-racism or, on the other hand, may leave Black first-year students feeling more isolated than in past years?
A: We think that it is going to be crucial for the College to continue to bolster its support for its students. Providing technological access is an important first step, and we hope that Bowdoin continues to find ways to facilitate learning for all and to support its students as much as possible. We especially hope to see programming and support for those who need it most. For example, Bowdoin has an abysmal record for graduating Black men and for providing for the mental and emotional well-being of its BIPOC students when they are on campus. This coming year, these challenges will interact with a lot of the inequalities that people face in their home lives. We hope the College embraces this coming year as an opportunity to bolster its support services for students, and minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the additional challenges they may face as they learn from home.
In terms of the political and racial climate, we are fearful that the physical and social distance between students and the College will lead to a decrease in the amount of pressure that is put on the trustees, the administration and the College as a whole. Just because students are not on campus doesn’t mean that their voices shouldn’t be heard. It also shouldn’t mean that the College is off the hook for doing anti-Racist work until students can come back. If anything, this is a perfect opportunity to double down and re-evaluate the social and academic norms of the College and how they can facilitate exclusion. We hope that administrators will make the most of this opportunity to listen to students and heed their concerns.
Lastly, we’ll say that community is an important part of being a Bowdoin student, and the Black community at Bowdoin is small but mighty. For incoming Black students, this semester may feel even more isolating than usual because they won’t have that community to physically embrace them and take them in. More often than not, the College will not provide the support and the validation that they need, but we encourage them to make as many connections as they can with older students and try to find that (virtual) embrace for the time being. You’ve got this!
Q: Do you have any other thoughts to share with the class of 2024 or any other group of current Bowdoin students?
A: We know that for many of the students in the incoming class, the events of this summer represent their first time having to really confront a lot of the large-scale structural racism that exists in the United States. We also know that many incoming students are coming from backgrounds of privilege, where they may have been slightly more sheltered from these issues. We even know that for some incoming students, their time at Bowdoin, of all places, will be the first time in their lives that they get to engage and coexist with students of numerous racial, ethnic and class backgrounds different than their own. Our advice is this: don’t shy away from learning about an issue (and we do mean taking the time to actually learn and engage) just because it may be difficult or uncomfortable or may require you to challenge some of the assumptions and privileges that you grew up with. This goes for everybody, across the board. Unlearning requires discomfort. Sit in it, engage with it, process it, discuss it and learn from it. You’ll be all the better for it.